Bioethics Blogs

Our Lazy Brain Democracy: Are We Doomed?

By John Banja, PhD

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Martin Shkreli embarrassment in connection with System 1 and 2 reasoning [1].  Popularized by thinkers like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, System 1 thinking refers to the fast, intuitive, reflexive, usually highly reliable cognition that humans deploy perhaps 95 percent of the time in navigating and making sense of their environments. System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, plodding, analytical, and data dependent—in short, an activity that most humans don’t particularly gravitate towards perhaps because our brains, at least according to Kahneman, are inherently lazy [1]. Shkreli, you’ll recall, is a former pharmaceutical CEO who found himself at the top of everyone’s hate list when he announced that his company was going to increase the cost of its drug Daraprim by 5000 percent.  (Daraprim is used in the treatment of malaria and HIV.) The public’s System 1, gut-level outrage predictably kicked in and, within weeks, Shkreli found himself without a job and battling criminal charges for securities fraud he allegedly committed with a previous company.
Martin Shkreli arrest, image courtesy of YouTube 

To me, Shkreli’s case vividly illustrates America’s sensationalist-prone, media-driven, knee-jerk, System 1 style of moral reasoning. Of course, Shkreli’s greed was way over the top and his price-hike justification—pharma’s predictable “we need these profit margins to fuel innovation”—was ridiculously disingenuous. Yet, Shkreli’s pricing indiscretion was an economic blip compared to two other health-related events with which our public sense of justice seems little concerned. One is the $160 billion merger (largest in 2015 corporate America) that is underway between American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the Ireland based company Allergan.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.